Another week has passed in college basketball and things are as interesting as they have ever been.
Arizona is ranked No.1 in the country for the first time since 2003, the young and talented Kentucky Wildcats are making those who chose them to win the national championship look a bit foolish and nobody can seem to figure out how the Wisconsin Badgers keep winning games. Needless to say, if the first month and a half of the season is any indication, we’re in for quite the thrill ride once conference play ensues next month.
To help make sense of all the early season madness, we’ll break down the week that was in college basketball.
North Carolina Tar Heels Keep Beating Highly Touted Teams
It wasn’t long ago that media members such as ESPN’s Jeff Goodman claimed that the North Carolina Tar Heels were an NIT team at best and they would be lucky to make that tournament let alone the NCAA tournament. Belmont went into Chapel Hill and came away with a 3-point victory. UNC responded by dismantling the Louisville Cardinals, ranked third in the country at the time.
Everything seemed to be OK for Roy Williams and his depleted lineup, then the UAB game came and went, leaving UNC with another unsettling loss in the early season. Again, UNC came back to silence their doubters by taking out Michigan State on the road, 79-65. After taking care of business against UNC-Greensboro, the Tar Heels hosted Kentucky and their talented group of freshman and, again, came away with a marquee victory at home, 82-77.
Since their loss to Belmont, the Tar Heels have gone 5-1 (loss being to UAB on the road) and knocking off the top three ranked teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. Those wins have each come in different fashion: Louisville was a neutral court game, Michigan State was a road win and Kentucky was at home. North Carolina has come back so strong that Goodman even apologized for his comments and UNC and has since changed his tone on the Tar Heels.
There has not been a more confusing or talented team this season than North Carolina. They have gone from looking absolutely terrible (see the 26 missed free throws in loss to Belmont) to looking like world beaters (see holding the Spartans to 16 points below their season average) in the blink of an eye. Amazingly, the Tar Heels are still not at full strength and could get even better. Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston, two of the better players and proven veterans on the team, have yet to suit up for Carolina this season (both facing separate NCAA eligibility rulings).
Carolina has a remaining non conference schedule that looks relatively easy before conference play starts. Hopefully by then (not holding my breath) the NCAA will have decided on Hairston and McDonald. If not, the Tar Hells look ready and daring enough to pull off a run for the ACC championship. It won’t be easy with Duke and Syracuse standing in their way, but they’ve proven that even when they aren’t at full strength, they can get the job done.
Iowa State Cyclones Having Miracle Season, Remain Undefeated
Sometimes the basketball gods smile down at one particular team each season, pushing them to newer heights than they have reached before, allowing them to win games they probably have no business winning.
Iowa State appears to be that team this season. The Cyclones have come away with three crucial victories against Michigan, BYU and in-state rival Iowa. At the time of the games, Michigan and Iowa were ranked, playing on the Cyclones’ home court. BYU was hosting Iowa State. In each of these three games, Iowa State was either trailing or down in the final five minutes of the game only to somehow manage to pull off victories in each game by a combined 12 points.
In the case for BYU, DeAndre Kane was ejected with 3:21 remaining and Melvin Ejim fouled out with 1:42 remaining in a highly contested game. BYU managed a 7-4 run but could not come with the the game-tying basket. Against Iowa, it took an 8-0 run by the Cyclones and numerous missed free throws by the Hawkeyes to come away with an 85-82 victory.
The Cyclones are first in the nation in scoring, second in assists and sixth in rebounds per game. All of these point to a team that should be blowing out opponents. Instead, it’s just a small sampling of how good Iowa State can be as they are coming away with timely baskets and a little bit of luck to help out. In reality, some of the best teams catch a few breaks here and there. It does not mean the Cyclones are not legit, it just means they may have a little angel on their shoulder this season.
Russ Smith: The Passer?
Louisville’s Russ Smith has made a name for himself for his willingness to jack up shot after shot without any regard for flow of the game or his teammates. His tendencies have caused more than a few headaches for coach Rick Pitino. Smith’s scoring is needed for the Cardinals succeed, but he has lately been displaying a new skill that has everyone scratching their heads a bit: passing.
It’s no secret that Smith can light up the scoreboard with his scoring prowess, but one of his best attributes is his ability to create offense for himself off the dribble. Until recently, his dribble penetrations have been meant solely for him to score. Now he’s using it to the advantage of his teammates, dishing out more assists than ever before, averaging nearly five dimes per game.
On the flip side, his scoring hasn’t diminished much because of it (17.2 this season compared to 18.7 last season), his shooting percentages are the same as last season’s national championship run and he’s taking the same amount of shots per game. Nothing has changed for Russ other than his willingness to share the ball. He’s had double-digit assist totals in two of the past three games and shows no signs of slowing down.
As long as Russ Smith is willing to share the ball, the Louisville Cardinals may be even more dangerous than they were last season. Having a dynamic playmaker that is also able to get open shots for his teammates is an asset successful teams have. Louisville may just have that with Smith being a passer and a shooter rather than strictly a shooter.
Weak Non-conference Schedules Prove Costly To Some Teams
When you look at non-conference schedules, there are a few teams that always schedule tough teams to get their team ready for the rest of the season. Others schedule weakly in order to garner more victories, often proving costly once faced with real adversity.
The latter is a prime example of UCLA and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh began the season 10-0, causing fans to clamor for a Top 25 ranking. However, they remained unranked because of such a weak non-conference schedule. Their best win came against Stanford, which is nowhere near the Top 25 themselves.
Then the Cincinnati game happened. The Bearcats, a good team in their own right, made the Panthers look like kittens as they held them to 31 percent shooting, 15 percent from the 3-point line and held them to a season low 43 points (Pittsburgh was averaging 82 points per game entering this contest). Pittsburgh wanted to be respected but once they were given their first real test of the season, they failed, and now must work to get back their credibility.
The same can be said for UCLA. The Bruins started the season 8-0 with their best win coming at home against Drexel in a tough battle and reached as high as 18 in the AP poll. UCLA finally had their biggest test in a true road game (their first of the season) against a streaking Missouri Tigers team. UCLA came and went, suffering their first loss of the season. Steve Alford’s team was presented a real test and, like Pittsburgh, failed. They, too, must now build up their credibility to be taken seriously the rest of the season.
One team that is getting away with weak non-conference scheduling is Ohio State simply because they haven’t lost yet. Entering the season, most had Buckeyes games against Marquette and Notre Dame circled on the calendar. Ohio State came away with a 52-35 victory at Marquette, which would’ve been a nice win had the Golden Eagles lived up to expectations for the season (6-4 on the season).
Notre Dame was also supposed to be doing good things is season, but home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State have people wondering if the Fighting Irish are for real, making Ohio State’s game with them on Saturday less meaningful.
Some big name programs don’t like to schedule talented teams for the non-conference season, opting to make their statements during conference play. UCLA and Pittsburgh have felt that wrath already and it may just be a matter of time until Ohio State joins them.